Saturday, September 18, 2010

Middle-range theory: sloppy citations or epistemological confusion?

I’m finishing up details for a paper on “empirical urban theory” that will be published in the Journal of Archaeological and Theory. Among other things, I advocate the usefulness of “middle-range theory” as defined in sociology (something quite different from the concept of the same name used by Lewis Binford). Here is how Robert Merton, who coined the term in the 1940s, defined middle-range theory:
  • “Middle-range theory … is intermediate to general theories of social systems … and to those detailed orderly descriptions of particulars that are not generalized at all” (Merton 1968:39-40).
This seems pretty clear to me: MRT is intermediate between high-level theory and empirical reality. I have found five archaeological discussions of this concept (Merton’s concept, NOT Binford’s). Two get it right, and three describe it incorrectly. First, the good news. Schiffer (1988) has a nice discussion of the importance of middle-level theory and concepts in archaeology, and Shott (1998) provides an excellent analysis of Merton’s ideas.

Now the bad news. In an early study comparing the concept of Binford and Merton, Raab and Goodyear mischaracterized Merton’s views:
  • “middle-range theory is seen as providing a logical link between relatively low-order empirical generalizations and comparatively high-order theories.”(Raab, and Goodyear 1984)
This is something quite different: empirical generalizations are NOT what Merton was taking about at all; he was referring to the empirical record, to “detailed orderly descriptions of particulars.” This is not a mere difference in words; it is a difference in epistemology. On the one hand (Raab and Goodyear) is a view that there is only a single level of theory. Empirical generalizations and high-level theory are epistemologically equivalent (both are explanatory frameworks), and middle-range theory is up there with them. On the other hand is Merton’s view that there are distinct levels of theory that vary in abstraction and generality, which is the contemporary consensus in the other social sciences

Now check out two later descriptions of Merton’s middle-range theory (NOT Binford’s) by archaeologists:
  • Middle range theory is: “a logical link between relatively low-level, empiristic generalizations and comparatively high-level theories.” (Forslund 2004). He cites Raab and Goodyear for this concept.
  • Middle-range theories are “theories that fell in the range between empirical generalizations and ‘grand theory’ ” (Johnson 2010:53). He does not cite Raab and Goodyear.
So what is the source of Johnson’s error in characterizing Merton’s concept? Did he rely on Raab and Goodyear (which seems to be the case with Forslund)? Was this a simple error in the interpretation of Merton? (I find that hard to believe; Merton seems pretty clear). Or perhaps the error is related to the fact that (Mertonian) middle-range theory does not exist in the epistemology of Johnson’s postprocessual archaeology. Hodder, for example, argues in many publications that all theories exist at the same epistemological level (Hodder 1982; Hodder 1986; Hodder 1999:60-65).

Well, my head is starting to hurt with all this talk of epistemology. I’m more of an empirical than a theoretical thinker, and maybe I’m way off base here. But to me, Merton’s concept seems extremely important for a scientific archaeology. I resent Binford for hijacking the term middle-range theory and I resent Raab and Goodyear for mischaracterizing Merton’s ideas. These two developments have slowed the adoption of contemporary social science explanatory frameworks by archaeologists. These frameworks rely on Merton’s middle-range theory. Check them out:
  • (Bates, et al. 1998; Bunge 2004; Hedström 2005; Hedström, and Ylikoski 2010; Mayntz 2004; Pawson 2000; Tilly 2001)


Bates, Robert H., Avner Greif, Margaret Levi, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and Barry Weingast  (1998)  Analytic Narratives. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Bunge, Mario  (2004)  How Does It Work?: The Search for Explanatory Mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34(2):182-210.

Forslund, Pontus  (2004)  MRT Confidential. In Material Culture and other Things - Post-disciplinary Studies in the 21st century, edited by Frekrik Fahlander and Terje Oestigaard, pp. 213-258. Gotarc Series C. vol. 61. University of Gothenburg, Gothengurg.

Hedström, Peter  (2005)  Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hedström, Peter and Petri Ylikoski  (2010)  Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 36:49-67.

Hodder, Ian  (1982)  Theoretical Archaeology: A Reactionary View. In Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, edited by Ian Hodder, pp. 1-16. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hodder, Ian  (1986)  Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hodder, Ian  (1999)  The Archaeological Process: An Introduction. Blackwell, Oxford.

Johnson, Matthew  (2010)  Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Blackwell, Oxford.

Mayntz, Renate  (2004)  Mechanisms in the Analysis of Social Macro-Phenomena. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34:237-259.

Merton, Robert K.  (1968)  Social Theory and Social Structure. 3rd ed. Free Press, New York.

Pawson, Ray  (2000)  Middle-Range Realism. European Journal of Sociology 41:283-325.

Raab, L. Mark and Albert C. Goodyear  (1984)  Middle-Range Theory in Archaeology: A Critical Review of Origins and Applications. American Antiquity 49:255-268.

Schiffer, Michael B.  (1988)  The Structure of Archaeological Theory. American Antiquity 53:461-485.

Shott, Michael J.  (1998)  Status and Role of Formation Theory in Contemporary Archaeological Practice. Journal of Archaeological Research 6:299-330.

Tilly, Charles  (2001)  Mechanisms in Political Processes. Annual Review of Political Science 4:21-41.


Jason Baird Jackson said...

Thanks. This is an important matter of conceptualization not only for sociology and archaeology, but for cultural anthropology, folklore studies and all fields that pursue both local knowledge and (more and less) general understandings of human experience. For debates on related questions in folklore studies, see a recent issue of the Journal of Folklore Research--45(1) from 2008.

Michael E. Smith said...

Jason- Thanks for the reference. I like the notion of "humble theory," and I think I will quote Noyes in my paper on urban theory.

ethnohistorian said...

I vote for sloppy citations - someone had talked about this idea so often, he forgot where he got it from. Thanks for reminding ME of Merton - I should probably talk about the need for his MRT in my dissertation, rather than taking it as an assumed thing we all agree upon.

Michael E. Smith said...

A few more details. Matthew Johnson does include Raab and Goodyear in the bibliography of the first edition of his textbook (1999), although I could not find where he cited them in the text.

Also, Robert Bettinger (1987:125) is another author who repeats the Raab and Goodyear quote mischaracterizing Merton's ideas, although it is clear elsewhere in the article that Bettinger in fact DOES understand and approve of the usefulness of Merton's ideas ("the Mertonian bridge between theory and fact," p. 128).

Bettinger, Robert L.
1987 Archaeological Approaches to Hunter-Gatherers. Annual Review of Anthropology 16:121-142.